A packed house of submarine veterans and their families gathered at the World War II Submarine Veterans Memorial Pavilion for a very special World War II Memorial Service Program, Nov. 7…
“We always look forward to celebrating the exploits, the traditions, the professionalism and the heroism of our veterans of World War II,” Edwards said in summing up before the gathering of heroes. “Words cannot convey how much we in today’s submarine force admire and appreciate what you have done. And much we owe you for our success.”
As this excerpt shows, it is not hard to find stories of memorial services and special recognitions for WWII submariners on many occasions other than Memorial Day. When combined with the torpedo deficiencies early in the war and limitations in WWII submarine design, their accomplishments are legendary and nearly defy belief.
With manning totaling less than two percent (1.6%) of the entire US Navy, submariners were responsible for over 50% of the Japanese tonnage sunk in WWII. The Japanese losses inflicted by US submarines break down further as:
- 4.9 million tons sunk from the Japanese Merchant Marine (60% of total lost).
- 700,000 tons of naval ships (30% of total lost) including 8 aircraft carriers, 1 battleship, and 11 cruisers.
The following quote from Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz is often used to summarize the importance of the submarines from the start of the Pacific campaign in WWII:
When I assumed command of the Pacific Fleet on 31 December 1941 our submarines were already operating against the enemy, the only units of the Fleet that could come to grips with the Japanese for months to come. It was to the Submarine Force that I looked to carry the load until our great industrial activity could produce the weapons we so sorely needed to carry the war to the enemy. It is to the everlasting honor and glory of our submarine personnel that they never failed us in our days of great peril.
I chose to highlight the WWII submariners today not because of their accomplishments, but because of their sacrifice made in the defense of liberty. The loss of 52 US submarines translates into a 22% casualty rate for submariners, the highest mortality rate in the US Armed Forces from WWII.
It is an oft-repeated cliché that history is written by the victors. While there is no doubt some truth buried in that cliché, it is beyond dispute that history is first written by the survivors. Most of the submarines were lost with all hands on board which means that there is no one left alive to tell their story.
Even after the war, Japanese records were of limited value since they reported over 200 “confirmed” submarine sinkings or almost as many submarines as the US deployed in both theaters of WWII. Even those Japanese reports that proved accurate can not provide the detail necessary to truly appreciate the sacrifice made by so many. However, there were survivors from the sinking of the USS Sculpin and their accounts give us a glimpse into that event…and some insight to the fate of the 3,500 submariners who gave that “last full measure of devotion” in WWII.
On the night of 18 NOV 1943, SCULPIN made radar contact on a convoy and began an “end around” on the surface before submerging for a dawn attack. However, the SCULPIN was spotted during the attack and was forced to dive deep to avoid the convoy’s escorts. About an hour later, the SCULPIN surfaced to start another end-around, but had surfaced only 6,000 yards from the destroyer YOKOHAMA that was lagging behind the convoy.
The SCULPIN immediately dove as the YOKOHAMA began dropping depth charges. The explosions caused damage to various systems and caused numerous leaks. As the depth charges continued, the air grew thin and the temperatures rose catastrophically. The SCULPIN escaped from the depth charges thanks to the high noise level from a nearby rain squall.
However, the trim pumps wouldn’t draw suction which meant that water could not be pumped from the flooding compartments to help trim (or level) the sub. The men began a bucket brigade in temperatures over 100 degrees in an attempt to help regain trim.
The submarine was ordered to periscope depth, but the depth gage stuck at 170 feet and the SCULPIN broached the surface. The SCULPIN was immediately detected by the destroyer, which began another string of depth charges. The crew momentarily lost depth control and the sub went down over 500 feet before regaining control. The steering mechanism was damaged such that it was nearly impossible for the exhausted, heat-stricken men to operate the wheel by hand.
With the steering mechanism damaged, evasion tactics were essentially brought to a stand still. About 12:30 pm, another round of depth charges caused leaks around the torpedo tubes in the forward and aft torpedo rooms and destroyed the sonar…eliminating the SCULPIN’s ability to hear anything beyond the explosions which required no amplification.
After five hours of depth charges, the battery was nearly exhausted and it was over six hours to sunset. Captain Connaway informed the squadron commander (who was riding on the SCULPIN) of his decision to surface and fight the destroyer. If all was finally lost in a surface battle, at least the men could abandon the ship and have some chance at survival.
The surface battle was one-sided. A number of men were lost to machine gun fire as they were coming up on deck. A round from the destroyer went through the conning tower, killing the XO. The CO was also quickly lost in the surface battle and another officer was lost while commanding the submarine’s tiny 3 inch gun. Command of the SCULPIN fell to Lt. Brown who was on station in the control room.
After having battled the destroyer for around 9 hours and absorbing an estimated 52 heavy depth charges, Lt Brown turned to the squadron commander, Commodore Cromwell and informed him of his intentions to scuttle the sub.
I informed Commodore Cromwell, who was in the control room, of my intentions. He told me to go ahead and he said he could not go with us because he was afraid that the information he possessed might be injurious to his shipmates at sea if the Japanese made him reveal it by torture. I then rang up, ‘Emergency speed” and passed the word, “Abandon Ship”, and sent Chief Hemphill forward and Chief Haverland aft to pass the word in case the P. A. system was out. When they returned to the control room we waited one minute by the clock, then ordered the vents opened, knowing that it would spell the doom of the submarine in minutes and thereby rob the Japanese of a valuable war trophy.
Along with Commodore Cromwell, a number of men went down with the submarine…some who preferred death to capture, some who refused to leave their stations, and some who could not get out due to the internal wreckage on board.
The 41 survivors of the SCULPIN were taken on board the destroyer and then to the island of Truk. About half of the survivors were killed when the aircraft carrier CHUYO transporting them from Truk was sunk, ironically by a US submarine. After capture, the story of the remaining survivors begins to mirror that of the POWs from the Philippines that we discussed last year as the survivors were eventually taken to work in a depleted copper mine north of Tokyo.
21 submariners from the SCULPIN entered the POW camps. All 21 submariners survived the internment and headed home after VJ day. The stories from these survivors give us the details on the SCULPIN and some insight on what the crews from the other submarines lost in battle might have endured during their final moments. It is my firm belief that taking the time to learn the details of one group of heroes helps us to better appreciate the sacrifice made by so many for our country and our freedom.
Medal of Honor citation for Captain John Phillip Cromwell
(paragraph breaks added)
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as Commander of Submarine Coordinated Attack Group with Flag in the USS Sculpin, during the 9th war patrol of the vessel in enemy controlled waters off Truk Island 19 November 1943.
Undertaking this patrol prior to launching our first large scale offensive in the Pacific, Captain Cromwell, alone of the entire task group, possessed secret intelligence information of our submarine strategy and tactics, scheduled fleet movements and specific attack plans. Constantly vigilant and precise in carrying out his secret orders, he moved his undersea flotilla inexorably forward despite savage opposition and established a line of submarines to southeastward of the main Japanese stronghold in Truk.
Cool and undaunted as the submarine, rocked and battered by Japanese depth charges, sustained terrific battle damage and sank to an excessive depth, he authorized the Sculpin to surface and engage the enemy in a gunfight, thereby providing the crew an opportunity to abandon ship. Determined to sacrifice himself rather than risk capture and subsequent danger of revealing plans under Japanese torture or use of drugs, he stoically remained aboard the mortally wounded vessel as she plunged to her death.
Preserving the security of his mission at the cost of his own life, he had served his country as he had served the Navy, with deep integrity and an uncompromising devotion to duty. His great moral courage in the face of certain death adds new luster to the traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.
In April 1984, I took the long walk down the DELTA pier to report for duty on the USS OHIO (Blue). That day was the culmination of nearly two years of training on top of an engineering degree from State. I am not frequently prone to bouts of introspection, but there were literally hundreds of thoughts going through my mind as I made my way towards the OHIO.
Looking back on that beautiful, sunny day in the Pacific Northwest, I knew a little about a lot of different things …technical, tactical, strategic, and historical. Over the next three years, my knowledge level in all of these areas dramatically increased. Gradually, I began to appreciate that the modern submariner stands on the shoulders of giants and walks in the footprints of heroes.
Outside of periscopes and the men that serve on them, there are few things in common between the fleet submarines of WWII and the Ohio-Class submarine (which is arguably the finest warship launched through the Cold War). So I do not presume to fully appreciate the bravery, heroism, sacrifice, or conditions endured by my fellow submariners in WWII. However, complete understanding is not required to pay honor and tribute to our fallen heroes.
Here at SFN, we choose to highlight an example of sacrifice each year to show that our feelings run far deeper than just lip service. So on this Memorial Day, we recognize those submariners who remain on Eternal Patrol as one more example of the sacrifices made by the many brave men and women that have given their lives for our country.
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